Conversation with a Creative: Meet Composer Scott Gendel


This month I got to sit down with composer Scott Gendel.

I've had the pleasure of singing Scott's music and I've been consistently blown away by his creativity and talent. I wanted to interview Scott because I was curious to learn about the world of composing, hear Scott's approach to creating new material and collaborating with other artists. Oh, and I also wanted to hear about what it was like to collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma. :-) Enjoy this conversation with a creative! 

HS: What does creativity mean to you? 

SG: Creativity is just about letting yourself play and not getting in the way of your own ideas and impulses. I think so much of the time the world around us has so many rules for what we’re supposed to do and so many paths and expectations to make sure we’re playing our part properly. Creativity is like what if we pretend none of that exists and just play.

HS: Can you give me an overview of your career trajectory from college until now? 

SG: I went to college as a Biology major, and considered music just a hobby. But in college I discovered all kinds of amazing musical experiences that changed my life, including my first time composing music. And eventually I went to graduate school and got my doctorate in composing. I had also always been playing piano and started working with singers a lot in graduate school. I could never be held to doing just one thing. Plus, if you’re writing music I think you also need to be performing music to keep yourself connected to what it feels like to perform. So I got my doctorate in composition, but I also completed a doctoral minor in opera and vocal coaching, and I also worked doing musical direction for theatre. I never really wanted to give any of it up. I like it all! 

When I finished my doctorate I realized you can make a career out of playing piano for singers and vocal coaching, and so I developed that career in addition to continuing my career composing. I was composing vocal music primarily, and working with singers all day at the same time. It all sort of feeds each other, and helps me be well rounded as an artist. At this point I am a vocal coach and pianist for opera companies, I do some musical theater direction, play for lots of auditions, but my main thing is composing. I compose songs, I just finished a ballet score, I write a lot of song cycles, choral music, and even operas. I like to keep my work diverse, and I make a living by doing all those diverse things. They all inform each other, and make each other better. If you were going to be a chef in a restaurant and you didn’t ever go to restaurants you would lose your touch. In order to write music I need to be making music all the time, and having all these different outlets makes that my reality. 

HS: What work have you been working on most recently and what are you most excited about? 

SG: I just finished up this children’s ballet score for a ballet company in Texas: “7 Princesses and a Bear.” It’s a two-act ballet for children. It’s got different themes for each princess, fun characters, and great dramatic arcs. It’s a fun new branching out for me, as I’ve never done a ballet before! I just finished the music a month ago; now I’m recording and getting it ready to go. I’ll go out to Texas and do a class for kids about what writing music for ballet is like, and then be there for the premiere of the ballet. Another project I’m excited about is with a friend who teaches voice at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and her husband, who is an amazing cello player. Amherst is where Emily Dickinson was born, so we’re writing a cycle of songs for soprano and cello and piano. We plan to perform it at a bunch of Emily Dickinson-related historical sites, the college,  and other places around the country. 

HS: What is your writing process like? 

SG: It varies a lot depending on what I’m writing. Generally there’s a level of preparatory work that happens before I’m writing anything. So I take apart the text (if there is one), play with the text in various ways, do a lot of singing in the shower, walk around with my ideas. Singing tunes and improvising vocally always gets me in the right headspace, so [I can spend time] living in the world of the piece before I start writing it. The actual writing is a lot of—I write at the piano some, but mostly I write directly to the computer. I don’t want it to be too informed by what my fingers enjoy playing, so I compose right on sheet music. For me, I really feel strongly that you have to write and write and write and write: writing things then throwing them away, writing things, throwing them away. That helps you figure out what you don't want the piece to be. Every time you throw something away, you get closer to what you really want.  For me, it’s rare that tweaking little details about a problematic idea will fix it. The more I tinker the more I can hear the tinkering, and it makes the music weaker. Instead, I just have to throw myself headlong into an idea, and then when I’m done, ask “is this what I truly want it to be?” And then 9 times out of 10, I throw it in the trash.  And then finally, once you have ideas that you love, you can build on them. But that first stage is always throwing a lot of things away. And then the further I get into a big project the less of that I have to do. Once you’re deep in, you’re sort of building in a world that you’ve already created, which is much easier than building your world from scratch. 

HS: How does inspiration play a role in what you write? Do you just sit down to write whether or not an idea has been sparked? 

SG: Most everything—with a few minor exceptions—most everything I write is written because it’s been commissioned. That’s what I do for my job. Having good technique means I don’t have to wait for inspiration to write, but I can do things to make inspiration come to me. Inspiration is a lot about finding the thing that sparks you, in the project at hand. I’m not big on the myth of the “god-like artist figure,” where things just occur to them from thin air. I don’t think that’s what happens. I keep a list of inspirational things around that I pull out for projects. Like when I set out to write some songs for tenor, for example. I had about 20 different poets I love bookmarked, poets whose work I think would make good songs. And those helped me to find an inspirational spark for the project. 

Though of course a lot of projects start with: “we need you to use this poem, or create this thing, for this type of performer.”  Having those guidelines essentially focuses me in. It gives me a world to play in, a focus and a point to invite inspiration into. Then it’s just finding the thing about that poem that speaks to me and going from there. I may not like a poem at first that I’ve been asked to work with, but the more I read any poem, even if I don’t like it, I can always get sucked into it. I’ve never had to work with material I think is terrible. If I’m working with poems or collaborators there’s always something I can find that makes me think, “that’s really neat.”  For me, inspiration is about finding that thing that’s really neat, and then I can’t resist wanting to play with it and work with it. I want to play with just about everything. Any piece of music I hear even if I don’t like it, I’ll be like “Ooh I want to play with it. I wonder if I could solve that problem by doing something musically to get around it.” It’s not that I don’t believe in inspiration, but so much of it is having skills and ideas to navigate the musical world. 

I often feel totally crippled by the idea of “write whatever you want.” I would have no idea. It’s like if you have no menu, being asked what you want to eat.  That’s one reason why, in a lot of my work, I start with poems. Finding ways to narrow down the field of possibilities—That’s a lot of what school was about. “Here’s this weird technique you probably don’t like very much. Why don’t you write a piece with it?” Stravinsky famously wrote something about that, about how composition is narrowing the field of “all possible music” into smaller and smaller boxes until you’ve created something unique. If we’re going with the “play” metaphor, imagine kids out on the playground with a ball. You can make up games with the ball, or you can play Foursquare, or whatever. And then the play really happens. Having a set of rules helps you focus your energy on what’s really needed to make the music work.

HS: It seems like I’ve seen you collaborate a fair amount. Can you talk about what that process is like? 

SG: In a way, all creativity is taking something that already exists and building on it in a different direction. I don’t really believe in something occurring to you in a vacuum. So much of what we do is “I heard this song but what if we tried this other interpretation instead.”  Or “I hated this thing on a concert, but that one part was really interesting, I’m going to try and do something like that but different.”  So anything I write is collaborative, whether it’s written with a living poet, or whether it’s just piano music. But it’s especially nice when you’re working with a living collaborator. There’s such a sense of playing together and taking each other’s ideas and running with them in a different direction the other person may not have expected. It’s hard to find the right collaborator that you get along well enough with to collaborate, but it’s magical when it works. So everything is collaborative in a sense. But the difference with live collaboration is that the other person can hear your artistic choices and respond back. (laughs) 

"In a way, all creativity is taking something that already exists and building on it in a different direction. I don’t really believe in something occurring to you in a vacuum."

HS: What do you look for in a collaborator? 

SG: The first questions are simple: Am I moved by their work? When I read this does it move me? Does it speak to me? But beyond that, you’re looking for someone who is both very creative and able to hear critiques and commentary about their work. That is not easy to find. A lot of people aren’t used to working with others. Poetry is a very solitary activity. I’ve met some fantastic poets, but if you say “What if we tried something like this? It would help what I’m doing musically,” they might feel mortally wounded and snap back, “Are you saying my poem’s bad?”  To work collaboratively, you need to be very comfortable with criticism. I’ve worked with Kelly, my wife, on a number of projects, and she’ll say to me things like “this part you’ve written here doesn’t work in the context of the show. It’s beautiful but you need to cut it.” And I trust her. That’s what it requires: to be in a collaborative relationship, you have to listen to people’s reactions and really consider them seriously. It takes trust and being willing to take critique. We have this image of artists as having an infallible vision that can’t be changed. It “came to them in a dream” so you can’t tinker with it. But that isn’t how it works with collaboration at all. You have to create and listen to feedback from other people and find ways to make it better.



HS: What is your advice to a young musician who would like to do what you do one day?

SG: Write and write and write. Sometimes people get bogged down in making everything perfect. Nothing you write will ever feel perfect to you—or it might for like, one hour. Then two hours later you’ll start to think it’s not perfect any more. I’ve seen a lot of young composers get bogged down worrying about getting every detail perfect. You don’t want to be sloppy, but really you learn technique by trying and seeing what works for you, then failing, and trying again. You don't want to get bogged down with fixing everything. 

Also: make friends with lots of musicians and write things for them. Work with your friends and be good to them. Honestly, I’m moderately successful, and a lot of my commissions come from a connection from some friend somewhere. Like this ballet commission: someone I went to grad school with, an excellent piano player, we got along well, she knows I am good at what I do and fun to work with. The ballet mistress was a piano student of hers, and asked her how to find a composer for a new ballet.  And that’s how I got involved with the ballet company!  You have to have good work and a strong work ethic to back it up, but a lot of getting work is being sure that is you have good relationships with other musicians. If they like your stuff and enjoy working with you, that can snowball into more and more work. So much of being a composer is about being pleasant to work with, making deadlines, listening to the people around you, being giving of your time and energy, forming a good network of friends and collaborators. 

And it’s about saying yes. Any time you have the opportunity to make music you should do it, or at least want to do it. Any time you have a dream you should follow it. Any time you have an opportunity you should take it. In hindsight, I became a professional musician because any time anybody in college was like “Hey, do you want to do this musical thing?” I was like “Yeah! Always!” The more music you’re making, the more you learn, the more fun you have, the more you become experienced. Too often I see people hesitant to take risks with their music or with their careers. Lots of young musicians are shy about sharing their music or putting themselves out there. But the most important thing in my development as a young musician was that I said “yes.” Eventually I had to learn to say “no” some. To have a career you have to say “no.” But even now, if someone talented pitches me a great idea I’m almost always like “Yeah, let's try it!”  Because this world is about forming connections and never losing that creative spark and passion for it. I always feel like when I meet a composer who doesn’t like to compose, well then [I think] “Why are you a composer?” It’s like singers who spend all their time stressing about singing, and never find enjoyment in it. If it stresses you out so much, then maybe don’t do it. Yes, there’s always stress, but the love has to be stronger than it. I say “yes” to almost every project because almost anything I hear about, I feel like “This is so exciting! I'm making art! How wonderful!” You don’t ever want to lose that excitement about making art. That’s the best part. 

If I had to pick one important lesson for a young musician, it would be that. You should find that kind of passion in yourself, get rid of whatever gets in the way of you making music, and doing everything you can to hold on to the joy of music.

Thank you Scott for the wonderful chat and for imparting such wisdom. You can find Scott's work on his website and keep up with him over on his Facebook page. Read advice from Scott and other thriving creatives in my eBook “5 Minute Mentor for Creatives”. Grab your copy here.
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